By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Be it a lack of interest or ability, he was not the type to manage a business. "I was a hippie in the 1960s," he says, "and fairly neurotic or nervous about becoming part of the establishment, or somehow having my values changed or compromised in that way." The dropout ethic began to exert its pull. Proximity to drugs and "hip" culture's other vices didn't help. Besides, Crawdaddy! was no longer a lone voice. Even The New York Times was covering rock. Williams saw little reason to continue.
"I'm getting a little bored, at times, pretending to tell you about music," he wrote in issue No. 18, "and I'd like very much to advance toward the stage where we all sort of tell each other." After the magazine's 19th issue, in October 1968, Williams left New York to join a commune in Northern California's Mendocino County. He was only 20 years old. Though Crawdaddy! continued to publish under various owners until 1979, the rest of its run was essentially a long goodbye.
WHAT BECAME OF HIS QUEST?
If Paul Williams' dream in starting Crawdaddy! was merely to legitimize rock, it has come true beyond his wildest fantasies. Today our culture is defined by rock & roll and its antecedents, the range of cultural expression based on capturing the headrush of youth -- extreme sports, MTV, punk, pop music that is loud, lewd or fast. Then again, maybe that dream is dead. In recent years we've witnessed the restoration of a pre-Crawdaddy! universe. What was the explosion of teen pop but fodder for hypersexualized versions of Tiger Beat? Even Rolling Stone doesn't read like Rolling Stone anymore (if not quite like Teen People). Maybe Williams' dream of an ascendant pop culture has died. Or maybe that wasn't his dream in the first place . . .
Williams currently lives in Encinitas, a suburb north of San Diego. His place is just west of the Pacific Coast Highway, just east of the Pacific Ocean. It sits among a cluster of beachside motels and two-floor, SoCal-style apartment buildings. They are beige, peach and yellow, but under the white noon sunlight the colors all run together. In front of the apartment downstairs, a Frankenstein lawn jockey stands at attention.
I meet him in his small home office, filled with CD box sets and copies of his two dozen or so books, many published by his own Entwhistle Press. In his post-commune years he traveled, bounced between New York and California, worked as a volunteer firefighter, and indulged his interests in science fiction and the New Age movement. In 1973, Elektra Records published his Das Energi, a book of "practical philosophy" that sold several hundred thousand copies. (An excerpt: "Sooner or later a person begins to notice that everything that happens to her is perfect, relates directly to who she is, had to happen, plays its little role in fulfilling her destiny.") At the end of Philip K. Dick's life, Williams became friends with the author, and upon Dick's death in '82 became executor of his literary estate.
Williams returned to music in 1986 when he wrote The Map, Rediscovering Rock and Roll (A Journey). He revived Crawdaddy! as a photocopied, not-quite-quarterly fanzine in 1993. Williams has come full circle. Anthologies drawing from the magazine's two incarnations have just been published. The Crawdaddy Book: Words (And Images) From the Magazine of Rock compiles the best articles from its run in the '60s; Return to the Miracle Factory collects Williams' own essays from the contemporary edition.
Heading out for a walk, Williams tells me that we'll be tracing the steps he takes each morning with Alexander, his new son (with his third wife, singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill). They go down to the beach, where he does a walking meditation routine and gets some aerobic exercise by climbing the local landmark, Stone Steps, two by two. "Before the baby came a month ago, I would also pick up trash," he says. "It's kind of a hobby of mine."
Williams likens his approach to music to Henry David Thoreau's 19th-century nature writings or The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James' 1902 take on faith. "My concept was never to rate music in some kind of critical context," he explains as we walk along the beach. "Instead, I ask: Why is this so powerful? In what ways is it affecting us? What is the experience?" For Williams, pop music isn't a quick thrill but a means by which to make time for leisure in a harried world. A pop single is a three-minute interval in which to think or relax.
"There is a very famous old line: I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like," he adds. "The greatness of art ultimately has to do with subjectivity. Anything else is, to a large extent, an illusion that there are right answers to the question. Traditionally that's the French Academy approach to literature, the high school approach to literature. The correct answer is: 'Victor Hugo is the greatest French writer, because that is what the academy has agreed.'"
Strangely enough, Williams' most lasting achievement may be Performing Artist, a series of books he's been writing since the mid-'80s about the one rock musician the academy can agree on: Bob Dylan. The books chronicle the evolution of Dylan's live shows from his early club performances to the Neverending Tour he undertook in the late '80s. The series -- Williams has published two volumes thus far -- is predicated on the fact that many of Dylan's most ardent fans fall in love with him based on bootleg concert recordings. It is the work of an independent scholar, documenting the hidden art that Dylan's commercial recordings do not reveal. If he is right in his hunch that Dylan is The Great Artist of the 20th Century, Williams' books could be tied to the songwriter as strongly as critic Samuel Johnson's writings are to Shakespeare.